Top court strictly assessed evidence in scrapping Osaki incident retrial

The Yomiuri ShimbunIt can be considered a decision handed down after carefully examining whether there was sufficient evidence to go ahead with a retrial.

The Supreme Court has rejected the third retrial request by a woman who spent time in prison on murder and other charges. The case involves the so-called Osaki incident that occurred in Kagoshima Prefecture in 1979. The Supreme Court’s ruling was unusual because it overturned the conclusion of the Kagoshima District Court and the Fukuoka High Court’s Miyazaki Branch, which both ruled in favor of holding a retrial.

The finalized decision recognized that the woman conspired with her former husband and several relatives, and killed her brother-in-law by suffocating him. The retrial request hinged on the court’s appraisal of the results of two assessments submitted by the defense team.

The district court cast doubt on the credibility of the testimony given by an accomplice who stated the woman was involved in the man’s death. This doubt was based on an assessment that psychologically analyzed written statements and other evidence. The high court attached weight to a forensic report that stated there was a “high possibility the death was caused by an accident.”

By contrast, the Supreme Court rejected the value of the psychological assessment of the accomplice’s testimony as evidence. The top court also concluded the forensic report “did not have decisive probative value regarding the cause of death because it was a perspective based on elements such as photos taken during the autopsy.”

For a retrial to be granted, clear evidence that shows a not-guilty ruling should be handed down must be newly presented to the court. Given that the Supreme Court decided the assessments presented by the defense team did not reach the required standard, it apparently had no option but to reverse the lower courts’ decision to start a retrial.

Problems in the process

In a 1975 ruling, the Supreme Court said the standard for deciding whether to hold a retrial should be based on “a comprehensive evaluation of new and old evidence.” In the latest case, the top court criticized the high court’s ruling as “unreasonable because it reached a conclusion without conducting a comprehensive evaluation.”

In recent years, DNA testing techniques have improved and retrials have been granted in a string of cases. However, the Osaki case had barely any physical evidence, and its evidentiary foundation was such that a guilty ruling could not be overturned through DNA tests.

The Supreme Court’s latest decision was a judicial judgment that once again showed the importance of strictly assessing evidence.

It also must be noted that problems surfaced regarding the investigation of the Osaki incident and the presentation of evidence in this case.

The content of testimony given by the relatives, which formed a major part of the evidence that supported the woman’s guilty ruling, changed repeatedly. Did the investigation rely too much on testimonies in some respects?

Prosecutors disclosed some evidence, including photos of the crime scene investigation and negatives showing the condition of the victim’s body, to the defense team only after the third request for a retrial had been made. This evidence was finally shared because the court strongly urged the prosecutors to do so.

This basic evidence should ordinarily be shown at the stage of the first trial. Evidence collected by the use of public authority must be properly disclosed to uncover the truth of what happened.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 28, 2019)Speech


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